Updated: May 18, 2020
As a young singer I developed the habit of singing with a high larynx position. This was most likely due to my constant imitation of pop singers and singing first tenor in high school choir. Without any prior vocal training, my body simply figured out on its own how to produce the high notes these activities required. Inevitably, this meant contracting my tongue, jaw and neck muscles and lifting my larynx (I affectionately call him "Larry" now). I became a veritable ‘necktie tenor,’ lifting my chin, craning my neck and squeezing out the high notes the best I could. I had a good instrument and above average expressive instincts, so I managed to earn a scholarship to BYU in vocal performance despite my lack of technique. I so wish now that I could go back to those days with the knowledge I currently have about lowering and tilting the larynx! It would have saved me years of frustration. I had good teachers back then, and I'm sure they tried to help me with this issue. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready for that kind of change. Regardless, I don't recall larynx position ever being directly addressed in my lessons, and I did not solve my high larynx issues during my undergrad, or even my master's years. One complicating factor to all this was being cast in all the operas, which never allowed me time to stop and figure out what I needed to change about my technique. Instead I was constantly in the position of having to make the notes happen any way I could. Since then, the vital concept of low larynx positioning has made all the difference in my teaching and singing. Here are seven facts that would have been great to know back in the day:
Fact #1: If you want to sing opera professionally, it is critical to establish a stable, low larynx position. This means the larynx should remain suspended in the ‘beginning of the yawn’ location within your neck at all times during phonation. This position is lower than the speech/resting position, which is ideal for contemporary singing but insufficient for opera. Coupled with a high soft palate and relaxed pharynx, the low larynx creates the most exciting and beautiful operatic resonance your body can produce. It is also the crucial component in getting your voice to cut over an orchestra, and a key to staying vocally healthy. Keep in mind that the low larynx position must not be acquired by depressing the larynx with the tongue. Know also that a high larynx will result in a far less resonant tone and too much pressure on the vocal folds. Both the high larynx and depressed larynx positions come with a slew of problematic side effects, while the low larynx brings only positive virtues.
Fact #2: Breathing and body alignment habits are critical factors in the low larynx quest. Maintaining a low larynx position requires one to learn how to suspend the ‘beginning of the yawn’ feeling throughout each sung phrase. A key to this is to connect that feeling to a low-diaphragm breathing technique and good body alignment.A traditional appoggio breathing technique will pull the entire bronchial tree and trachea downward upon inhalation, and help anchor the larynx in the low position. Proper head and neck alignment will cradle the larynx in place and assist in keeping the pharyngeal space open. The strap (sternocleidomastoid) muscles should stay wide during singing, and the entire neck should feel almost as though it is expanding in diameter. When aligning the body, it is crucial to keep the ears well back over the shoulders and the back of the neck long. If your chin pops up or cranes forward whenever you sing a higher note, Larry is rising. Keep your top row of teeth parallel to the ground regardless of pitch.
Fact #3: For many singers, learning breath support , posture and relaxation will not be enough to truly establish the low larynx position. Because the muscle memory of high larynx singing is so powerful, it often requires a very direct, committed approach that includes things like larynx tracking and the correct modeling of sounds and sensations associated with the low position. Many teachers won't know how to do this, so you need to find the right mentor to help you, and fast! You don’t want to spend years spinning your wheels, tickling the edges of this issue but never fixing it. Give a good teacher 2 months to a year and (if you are a teachable and hard working student) you’ll be able to figure it out. Very few things will work consistently well in your voice while your larynx is high or unstable. On the flip side, everything you'll need is at least possible once your larynx is low and stable!
Fact #4: You can monitor your larynx position with your finger. It is easy to know if your larynx is in the right location if you simply put your finger on it and sing. If your larynx is small, it will be harder to locate, but you can figure it out with a little guidance. Remember, it should be lower than when you are at rest or speaking, but not quite as low as when in a full yawn. Don't be surprised if your larynx pops upward on the onset of tone or as you ascend in pitch at first. Be confident in the fact that you don't need to elevate the larynx at all to sing higher. The larynx should absolutely remain low at all times. The sooner you commit to this principle wholeheartedly, the sooner your new vocal life can begin. I highly recommend that as you monitor the larynx, you also monitor the activity, shape and look of your tongue. Do not allow the tongue to press down towards the floor of the mouth or retract back towards the throat. Keep it looking plump, right behind the teeth and sitting a little high and wide in the mouth. It should not contort into any funny shapes like tacos, ski jumps, spoons, or sausages. You must induce the beginning of the yawn position and suspend it without any assistance from the tongue!
Fact #5: You can’t expect to sound the same as you always have when you learn how to lower your larynx. The lower position will elongate your vocal tract and change your sound significantly. This is a good thing! Your ear will not like the new sound at first. It will sound darker and more raw. It will ultimately make your voice brighter as well. Don’t be afraid of this, you have needed these colors all along. You’ll notice that you are making much more sound than before and it will cost you far less vocal capital to do it. Though it can be painful and scary to let go of your old vocal identity, rest assured that what is on the other side of your new low larynx is still you- just a turbo-charged, healthier version!
Fact #6: The vertical position of the larynx alone is not enough, you must learn how to allow the larynx to tilt forward as needed by freeing the tongue and jaw muscles completely. A tilted larynx produces thinner, longer vocal folds, resulting in easier high notes that require much less air to produce. This is also a key to developing 'squillo' in your sound. For an incredible discussion on laryngeal tilt, see this video by my mentor, Jack LiVigni.
Fact #7: High larynx muscle memory can be bypassed quickly by using 'primal sounds.' Watch this short video I made and you will see what I mean:
Best of luck to you on this journey of discovery!